The benefits of incorporating the use of XML/XSL in your web content management strategy are clear and compelling. XML technologies may no longer be considered bleeding-edge, or even leading-edge; nevertheless, there is good news. The XML train has not yet left the station. Used well it can provide tremendous value. And you still have time to get on board.In its simplest terms, XML is a way to structure data, and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language) -- using a content script transformation language known as XSLT (XSL Transformation) -- is the process used to select and format data. While XML, XSL and XSLT are used for data of all kinds, when it comes to your website, you can think of these terms as follows:
XML = content XSL = layout and design (stylesheet) XSLT = content transformation language
XML is an exciting technology precisely because it provides unparalleled flexibility. It provides a universal format for structuring and storing site content. XSL is important because it allows you to selectively use content and easily control your site’s format and display -- the look and feel of your website. While there are similarities between XML/XSL and HTML/CSS, the difference is in the transformational power of XSL, which allows complete control over content, design, format, even the file output type. Using XSLT you can filter, sort and process content and data prior to generating and outputting a file. The possibilities go far beyond those of HTML/CSS and extend to nearly any file type. It’s also important to note that XML data can originate from files stored anywhere on the Web or your private network. For example, an XML file containing course or faculty information could be output by a database at the district level, allowing subsets to be displayed on web pages at each individual college or department.

Repurpose Content Using XML/XSL

Content repurposing is the practice of using XML/XSL to create content “components” or chunks that can be easily reused and reformatted for different purposes. For example, let’s assume that we have XML content we would like to use for two very different output files. Since there is typically a one-to-one relationship between an XSL stylesheet and an output file, we would simply create two different XSL files that contain instructions to produce each unique output file -- let’s assume one is a web page, and the other a Comma Separated Values (CSV) file for use in a spreadsheet. When the XML content (referencing our two unique XSL files) is processed by the XSLT transformation engine (supplied by the web Content Management System), the resulting output is both an XHTML webpage and a CSV file containing the same content. So, what’s the point? A practical example of this might be a faculty contact guide, resulting in a web page nicely formatted with names, phone numbers and photographs of each staff member, and a CSV file that opens in a spreadsheet containing the same basic information but without all the formatting. If needed, an XSL stylesheet could be designed to output a PDF file, raw or transformed XML content, plain text or virtually any file type imaginable. Course catalogs, event listings, and news and notices are other great uses of content repurposing to multiple file outputs. These are simple, yet powerful ways to use XML and XSL for content repurposing.

Tap into the Web of XML

More and more content is becoming available in XML formats every day. As part of an XML strategy its important to look to data sources beyond your institution. Today, we’re seeing an explosion of XML content that’s available in the form of RSS news feeds, blogs and a wide variety of amazingly creative external (and publicly available) information sources. External, XML content is now readily available that goes far beyond news, weather and stock tickers. We now have public access to XML data for mapping, research and a wide variety of topic-based or niche information. All of this information, because it’s already in an XML structure, can be automatically filtered, sorted, combined and repurposed on your website. In particular, XML content in the form of an RSS news feed from your website can play a critical role in the “instant messaging” of timely or urgent messages to those who have agreed to receive such notifications. For example, one RSS feed could result in a mass-distributed cell phone text message (SMS) to notify students, parents and staff members that your institution has closed unexpectedly due to catastrophic weather conditions, power outages, or other crisis. The time and cost savings associated with this short-cut in the broadcast communication, as well as the positive public and media relations value, is priceless.

Maintain Separation of Content and Design

By design XML/XSL gives you the ability to separate content from design. XML is used to structure and describe the content, while the design is left up to the XSL stylesheet. This separation allows your design team to create a web layout, design, and information architecture to fit today’s needs, and then later change it by simply changing the XSL stylesheet used to control the design. In reality you might have several stylesheets to control your web design. For example, you might have one stylesheet to control the look-and-feel of your top-level pages, another to control your second-level pages, and perhaps another for your faculty pages. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) is encouraged in the XML/XSL model. XSL will give you greater control than CSS can alone, but XSL allows you to include CSS files so that web-oriented output -- your XHTML file -- can be easily edited.

Implement an XML Web Content Management System

The use of XML in a Web CMS is not new. The benefits have been well understood by ecommerce media publishing and transaction-oriented websites for many years. Consequently, many CMS products that cater to these markets have been designed from the ground up around the XML/XSL model. Often these systems impose their use across an entire website, resulting in a major website redesign and implementation effort. This type of expense and resource drain is unnecessary. A more flexible CMS can allow for the management of multiple content types within a single environment. This includes both the content stored in structured XML, as well the many thousands of pages of legacy HTML content that most colleges and universities must continue to maintain in their websites. This is done without having a conversion or forced migration of any legacy HTML content.

Evolve Your XML Strategy Incrementally

The benefits of an XML/XSL Web CMS are clear, many and readily available. And, better still, the use of XML/XSL can be -- and really should be -- treated as an evolutionary process, rather than a revolutionary nightmare. Pick and choose where XML/XSL will bring your institution the most benefit, and then prioritize in order of those areas that will take the least effort -- making those your first priority. Begin with a good strategy, and reasonable goals. Pick a web content management system that seamlessly supports both your existing HTML content and your XML/XSL migration. Then prioritize and execute -- one task at a time! Your efforts will payoff in more ways than you might imagine. --- Lance Merker is President and CEO of OmniUpdate, Inc. The company is a provider of web content management solutions for the Higher Education market.